The result, Francis said, would be a "well organized and even 'modernized' ecclesiastical body, but without soul and evangelical novelty."
In response, Woelki urged the other bishops in Germany to "take the pope very seriously." He told the plenary session of the German Episcopal Conference in September that the Church in Germany must begin by "re-evangelizing itself" as an "indispensable prerequisite" for its wider mission, noting that Francis' letter made clear that this required the bishops to remain rooted in the essential unity of faith, in Christ, and with the whole Church.
"This is the indispensable sign for our synodal way, which has to run like a thread through it, so that the Synodal Way can bear true fruit. The Pope's letter leaves no doubt about that," the cardinal said at the time.
Different curial heads also made explicit interventions, first in private, then in public, telling the German bishops that their synodal plans were a challenge to the universality of Catholic teaching and discipline and not valid.
A legal assessment of the German synodal plans from the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts concluded that the German bishops' plan confers to the synod's membership the ability to make new policies for the Church in Germany. This, the Vatican concluded, is not acceptable.
The Vatican letter also said that the proposed make-up of the synodal assembly is "not ecclesiologically valid." It cited the bishops' proposed partnership with the Central Committee of German Catholics, a lay group that has taken public stances against a range of Church teachings, including on women's ordination and sexual morality.
The Vatican assessment noted with concern that the Central Committee of German Catholics only agreed to be involved in the process if the synod assembly could make binding policies for the German Church.
"Synodality in the Church, to which Pope Francis refers often, is not synonymous with democracy or majority decisions," wrote Archbishop Filippo Iannone, head of the PCLT.
"The synodal process must take place within a hierarchically structured community," the letter added, and any resolutions would require the express approval of the Apostolic See.
On Jan. 27, the secretary of the German bishops' conference gave a pointed interview insisting that it is "unacceptable" that Rome continue to have full discretion over universal teaching and discipline.
Instead, Fr. Father Hans Langendörfer, SJ, called for other regions to follow the German's example and effectively force through a new federal model on the Church.
(Story continues below)
Subscribe to our daily newsletter